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A New Day for American Leadership/Integrity Revisited
Ethical and effective leadership is a rare commodity. It takes an uncommon person to act as its provider. This leadership is part vision, part art, part science, part experience, part faith and part know-how, all bound together in an ironclad package called integrity.
Let's be quite clear up front. I don't care who you are, what you have accomplished or where you went to school. If you do not model integrity for the people you propose to lead, you are not a leader. You are merely the highest level of a bad example the organization has to offer. You are simply a person who exchanged character for prominence, morality for position and ethics for power. And quite frankly, with the current state of the economy, the instability that exists within world markets, the daily possibility of war, and the plethora of dishonesty that has plagued the business world for the last three years, we all can live without the disease you bring to the table. (Insulted? I hope not. After all, it's not you I'm talking about. Is it? Of course not!)
We are in an economic mess. Could things be worse? Definitely, but they can also be better. Robert Frost once said, "Very often, the only way out is through." We will get through this difficult time for a variety of reasons. Happily, most people want to get back to work. They genuinely want to make a meaningful contribution. They need to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. (To my way of thinking, there is nothing worse than waking up and wondering what you are going to do for the day. If that is wealth's reward, all of a sudden, being a working stiff doesn't really look that bad.)
Are you are one of the new leaders? One of the chosen few that is going to guide us out of the malaise and get this economy creating jobs, wealth and value again? If so, below are ten considerations for the new leadership standard that you would be wise to abide by:
- Stop, look, and listen. Open your eyes, your ears and your mind. Ask questions if something makes you feel uncomfortable. Ask them properly and politely but by all means, ask. (Better by far to ask and be wrong than to have looked away and wish that you had.) Not good with numbers? Hire a consultant. Hire ten if you must, but be sure that your organization's finances are pristine.
- Personify integrity. You have probably heard this before. However, for our new leaders, its message must be stated anew and your struggle to put it into practice must be redoubled. Edward Hennessy said, "Ethics must begin at the top of an organization. It is a leadership issue and the chief executive must set the example." As a leader, you might think that your people are responsible to you and, to some degree, that is true but you are far more responsible to them. As a leader, your people look up to you. They admire you. Many may wish to be just like you. Believe it or not, you might even be someone's hero. Don't disappoint them. No one wants to learn that a hero lacks integrity. It is a painful and disillusioning experience. This I know for a fact.
- Insist on zero tolerance for any unethical or dishonest behavior of any kind. Call it tough love for the organization, if you like but be sure to put it into effect. There are to be no exceptions and no second chances for anyone. It is so simple to gently shave ethical edges in order to make deals come together and numbers look good. Do not allow this to happen in your company because once it starts, it is too easy to let it continue. Or worse, to escalate.
- Walk the talk. Your employees will seldom pay much attention to what you say as they doze through what Jim Mullen calls your "grand and gassy speeches." Today's employees are far too enlightened and sophisticated to do something as naive as just listening to your words. They have been around too long and seen too much to exhibit such adolescent loyalty. However, what they will do is watch your actions. They will adopt their observations as the acceptable norm and conduct themselves accordingly. Your ethics will become their ethics. (As an aside, they will be watching especially closely when times are hard; when it is easiest to bend the rules.) Not sure if it is ethical? Hemingway said if it feels good after it is done, it is moral. If it feels bad after it is done, it is amoral. Translation? Don't even take a pencil home if it is company property.
- Draw up a code of ethics and have all employees sign it upon commencement of employment. Most new employees have to sign a host of documents on their first day of employment. Why not make them read and sign something really important like a code of ethics? It should be something simple, fair, and easy to understand. This action will have great impact. There can be no better way to start a position than knowing that your new company values integrity, and with the wave of your pen you have now signed on to value that core value of integrity as well.
- Be sure that all of senior management is on board with integrity as a core value. (This is not a time for lip service.) Not as a value when appropriate or as a value when easily applied. Not as a value when convenient to use, but as a value that is of great importance and not open for discussion in difficult times. Values are not like sails that move with the wind. Values are bulwarks that are anchored to the bedrock of the earth and do not bend under any circumstances.
- Do not say that you did not know. When all is said and done, you are the leader. It is your watch and you are responsible. None of us wish to see your spouse crying on some talk show about how you did not know this or that odious activity was going on. Set up systems. Set up limits. Set up controls. Set up anything necessary so you do indeed know what is going on. There are no longer any acceptable excuses. The company was too small, the company was too big; we let the consultants handle it. It simply does not matter. It is your job to know what is going on. If you wind up on the cover of Time magazine, it should be for person of the year not because you are going to do a stretch in a Minimum Security Prison.
- Recognize that being a leader is a great responsibility and a serious burden. People are hungry for leadership. They wish to be led: to be shown the way. Emerson said, "Our chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can." If you are this person, realize that the task of leadership is enormous with, in many cases, far more of a downside than an upside. JFK said, "I do not shrink from this responsibility, I welcome it." If you do not feel this way, you are not a leader.
- Avoid even the appearance of conflict of interests. In a world where perception equals reality, your brother-in-law just might be a great candidate for the Vice President of Sales position but so are thousands of other candidates. Be smart and avoid the issues that might come back to haunt you down the road. Let your brother-in-law find another position and some day you may be very glad that you did.
- Lead the organization with courage and conviction. Hire the best people you can find, get out of their way and let them do their jobs. Be involved but never micromanage. Allow the people, who deal with your customers, permission to make on the spot decisions as opposed to having to consult with five levels of supervisors. Develop your employees with career advancement programs so they are ready to handle more responsibility when the time arises. Listen to feedback from all camps and corners of the organizations. Great solutions come at times from very strange places. Talk to your customers, especially the ones who are not happy; you will learn more from them than the rest.
The previous ideas are dedicated to the leaders of industry from all walks of life that are now emerging. They are about to replace the sad and dishonest faces we have all seen and heard about for the last eighteen months. Unfortunately, most of those white-collar criminals will be exonerated for their crimes or perhaps be given a slap on the wrist. No matter, they are simply the monsters created by a society of greed and a culture of self-indulgence and frightening abuse. What is needed now is a new system born of the integrity, ethics and honor that once were the hallmark of American industry.
Perhaps some night, you will be dining in a fine restaurant, on your birthday, or some other special event. You will look across to another table and see a face that looks familiar. Your eyes will meet for a brief moment. He will look away quickly and shift just slightly in his chair looking momentarily uncomfortable. There will be a glint of recognition on your part as you try to recall the face you have just seen. Your glance will linger for another instant as your eyes narrow in recognition. Now you remember. He is one of the "leaders" that looted his company several years back. You will see the red liquid in a glass right next to what appears to be an expensive steak. The liquid in the glass is not the expensive wine you might expect. It is the monies stolen from those employees, who once felt secure enough to retire and are now wiped out and starting again. Look a little closer at the deep red colored liquid. It is not wine. It is blood, the blood of people who followed the wrong leader.
Founder and president of HR Innovators, Inc. He is a consultant, writer and public speaker who is famous for improving his client's condition. Howard's new book, Hiring and Retaining Top IT Professionals: The Guide for Savvy Hiring Managers and Job Hunters Alike is selling well. He is currently working on his second book.